The Depth of “Dick”: Deconstructing Horatio Alger

Incalculably complex is the legacy of Horatio Alger (1832-1899). Alger had written poetry and several “grown up” novels before striking it big with his best known work Ragged Dick, or Street Life in New York With the Bootblacks (1868). There followed a torrent of juvenile literature in a similar vein, usually with similar titles: Mark the Match Boy, Luck and Pluck, Rough and Ready, Luke Larkin’s Luck, etc. After Alger died in 1899, his unfinished works were completed by Edward Stratemeyer (creator of The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, The Bobbsey Twins and Tom Swift) and published posthumously through 1913. Alger’s work remained in popular circulation through the late 1920s — after which there was a distinct chill in the public’s attitude toward laissez-faire capitalism (the prevailing philosophy of these books) for obvious reasons.

Most educated people have a cocktail party conversation level awareness of who Alger was, based on the oversimplified reduction of his works to easily memorable formulations made all the more tempting by the fact that his book titles encourage it: “Rags to Riches”, “Luck and Pluck”, etc, He is associated with the Gilded Age and America’s so-called “Success Myth”, and accused of generating a literature that sold the idea everyone (each male, back then) is a potential Rockefeller, Astor, Carnegie, or Vanderbilt, provided he has enough character, works hard, and saves.

That wasn’t quite it, though. Yes, Alger’s novels for young people were usually about boys in poor circumstances who managed to acquire wealth. But the books are not quite as Pollyanna as all that. Sheer luck and nepotism invariably also played a role in the stories. Usually the hero had an opportunity to cross the path of some rich businessman, then to distinguish himself in some way with some impressive act of industry or thoughtfulness, for which he was rewarded with some ground-floor position, from which he climbed his way upwards, by dint of his virtuous character. In other words, Alger’s very boilerplate ACKNOWLEDGES that under capitalism, luck is an element, and so is “who you know”. No one EVER said “in America everybody gets rich”. The lucky and connected do — provided (according to Alger) they work hard, and don’t waste time and money, and avoid dubious associations. But he’s quite clear that you can’t even work your way up from the bottom if you never make connections. And what’s too little acknowledged about his books is that they are by design inspirational and educational tools. So they don’t really admit the blinding, horrible truth that worthless crooks and scoundrels inherit and steal money all the time (one of the worst of these types was U.S. President from 2017 to 2021). Or that only boys — white boys — had these opportunities. The books were not about painting realistic portraits. They were about molding solid citizens, and providing pleasant fantasies. Alger is accused of setting up unreasonable expectations of what society can or will deliver to the ambitious poor. A male Cinderella myth…or “Cinderfella“, if you will. But why is that on him? Surely the fact that the portrait is not real is implicit in the word “fiction”? “Life is not how it is in books” — isn’t that a well-known thing? And even so, no one hands the heroes of Alger’s book any fortunes. They are made to earn them, and it is not depicted as easy. When people try to claim that America is NOT a place where you can work hard and get ahead, even now, when it’s plenty hard to do so, it gets my dander up. That’s just as big a lie as claiming a fortune is guaranteed.

The other unfair assumption which most people have about Alger was that he was a hack. Naturally, he is associated with the age of dime novels, and he did write books for young people based upon a formula, but having read several of them, and having dived deeply into one of them in order to adapt it in a play, I can disabuse you of that fallacy. Alger was a Harvard graduate and a second generation Unitarian minister (although that, only briefly). He was admired by Longfellow, and a considered a peer by many of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Though idealized, his work provides us with useful portraits of the lower depths and upper echelons of New York City in the 19th century. Most of his characters start out as street urchins. Alger researched his subjects thoroughly; there is tons to be learnt about the time and the place through the fabric of his novels. It’s true that characters are simply drawn by the standards of our time, but on the other hand it was well within the tastes of his time, and I find his writing scarcely cruder in that respect than that of Dickens (who came earlier) or of the melodrama writers for the stage of the same period, like Boucicault or Steele Mackaye. From where I sit, I don’t know that Jack London, Stephen Crane, Bret Hart, or O. Henry tower over him like Behemoths, though naturally Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville obviously do.

But I’ve offered up precious few facts! Alger was of old, colonial Massachusetts stock (though he is so closely associated with NYC). His time as a minister was short: 1864-66. He was forced to resign in disgrace after apparently “crossing the line” with — surprise, surprise — young boys. This is above all the overwhelmingly problematic fact about Alger’s life. The incident is what caused him to abandon the ministry and write full time. And what did he write about? The travails of young boys. He also worked with children as a teacher, spent enormous amounts of time among street kids to research his books, and did volunteer work among them as a mentor. From our 21st century perspective, when no one survives sex abuse scandals, this is hard to wrap your head around. And I don’t know that there’s enough evidence to make sense of it, given the careful language of the era, and how little it took to create a HETEROSEXUAL sex scandal at that time. Was his inappropriateness with minors “minor”? Misunderstood? Blown out of proportion? Or the opposite? Was it a Catholic church style cover up? Did he turn over a new leaf, and was the final act of his life about redemption? I don’t wish to sound cynical but the form his charitable work took seems…suspicious? And we don’t know for sure, which makes it a fruitful topic of conversation. Facile and easy pronouncements (like the plots of Alger’s novels, there, I said it), not so much.

Years ago, I had conversations with no fewer than two downtown theatre companies about adapting Alger for the stage. Theatre Askew did a play called Horato’s Rise in 2010 by Jason Jacobs which I believe explored the sexual ambiguity. The Metropolitan Playhouse had a Horatio Alger Festival in 2012 (which Jacobs also participated in), and for which I wrote a Ridiculous style adaptation of Ragged Dick that would have starred one of my favorite performers Poor Baby Bree, but I ended up pulling out, which was a painful decision (I think it may have been so that I could direct Angie Pontani’s Burlesque-a-Pades, a paying gig). By the way, there was also a 1982 musical called Shine based on Ragged Dick. After a long and tortured history it finally had its NYC debut at NYMF in 2010. For some reason, Alger was in the air during the early two thousand teens.

At any rate, during my libertarian phase, I had a real fondness for Alger’s books. I thought of him as the Capitalist Dickens, and certainly associated him very much philosophically with both the vaudeville managers and performers I wrote about in No Applause. Hey, man — George M. Cohan was Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford! And think of all the silent screen personalities whose plots seems to borrow from his — such as early Douglas Fairbanks and Harold Lloyd, in particular. As a boy Charlie Chaplin had played the lead in a stage adaptation of one of Alger’s novels. And Groucho Marx said “I grew up on Horatio Alger. We all did”. Today, I regard the author as someone who has different lessons to teach…and is a wellspring for useful political, social, sexual and historical debate.

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